I was so inspired by an exhibit I happened upon a few years back at the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen that it truly affected my life’s course.
Focused upon Nordic cuisine and agriculture, the exhibit explained that the unique climate of the far north offers benefits often unrecognized. Scandinavia produces fruits of the same sweetness as those in Southern European countries due to the long daylight hours experienced there. What Denmark lacks in intense sunlight, it makes up for with a longer duration of sunlight hours. Their fruit ripens more slowly over a longer season, giving the fruit deeper aromatics and more layers of taste, for in the ripening process, it is structural elements that form first, then taste and aromatics later. Fruit that ripens more slowly will have more time to develop stronger sensory-pleasing qualities. They pride themselves on their short transport times of Scandinavian produced products, for leaving the fruits on the plants until just hours before reaching the customer allows for optimum taste, freshness and nutritive benefits. Realizing the intricacies of agriculture, I was driven to refocus my studies and career; I left my original area of study of horticulture and switched to farming and food production. This was a moment of the stars aligning for me: goats, cows, fruits, and cooking took over my thoughts.
Much earlier though, in preparation for my trip to Scandinavia (I would be traveling to Sweden and Finland too), I watched enough Rudy Maxa, Rick Steves, Globetrekkers, and other travel shows to know all the perks of traveling during this early summer season. Steves even made a point to mention that on the island of Aero, one can bike up to a roadside stand and take a pint of the fresh summer strawberries, paying by the honor system in a can left behind. I desperately wanted to do that. My mother says that during a period in my youth, all I’d agree to eat were strawberries, and in all honesty, I still give them slight preference. And, if strawberries were singled out as a tourist attraction in their own right by a travel professional, I knew they were something to look forward to.
Little did I know that I wouldn’t have much seeking to do; strawberries were literally bursting in every corner of town. While I never made it to Aero, pop up fruit stands and markets accompanied every train station entrance, plaza and street corner. In addition to fresh strawberries, peonies were in bloom and the new potatoes were being unearthed. I was in heaven. Each day, I buy a pint of berries and a cappuccino, the purveyors of both recognizing me and acknowledging my appreciation of their offerings. I settled in quickly to a place I realized had my exact same priorities.
It became almost comical. I’d purchase another pint, photographing it like it was the tourist at all the sights, snacking and walking end to end of the city. Had I not later experienced a complete hard drive meltdown that erased most of my photos, you too would see the evidence of my pink stained fingers and red lips. The berries were small- compact little fruits with the sweetest flavor with just a trace of tartness. The farmers selling them picked daily, and I knew that if nothing else, what I tasted was a freshness that proved supermarket berries at home to barely be recognizable as fruit. These berries were the berries my mother used to make us pick each June for preserving, but the Danish ones were better. What I also loved was the seemingly unregulated stands selling them: these were not organized farmer’s markets like in the US, nor were they the outdoor markets you find throughout Europe, these were one farmer at one stand in the middle of a plaza. I felt sneaky buying them, like a risk taker who shunned The Man for the elicit berries, even though I knew full well there was nothing illegal about them. Just pure deliciousness.
So it was these strawberries (and Finnish potatoes but that’s another story!) that helped direct my interests toward food and agriculture. The exhibit at the Design Center inspired an in-depth report on the governmental regulations on agriculture in Denmark and a study of the dairy industry there. It was during this study that I dove into the comparisons of farming small scale versus large, organic versus conventional, growing single crops versus diverse production, cooperatives versus single producer, and artisanal versus mass produced. Over and over again, I learned the arguments to each side and weighed the benefits of each. I admire the Danish government for adhering to such strict regulations that each farmer and food producer is nearly—by default—organic, since in order to maintain the health and integrity of Denmark’s water and soil no chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics are allowed. Danish farmers must learn to care for their farms through a nearly holistic approach, caring for the land, water, crops, soil and animals in one interdependent network.
I began to look for the red organic (okologisk) symbol in Denmark. This was given to products that adhered to all governmental requirements to transition to organic within a four-year span. I also began noticing the artisanal products, especially the dairy, rampant in Copenhagen. It was clear there were two parties involved; one was clearly the more industrial, of an older school, often the cheaper option of butter and milk, and then there were the newcomers. These had modern packaging and were cooler in every respect; obviously made and marketed for the younger set. In talking to Danes in their twenties and thirties, I learned that those were the products you’d serve your friends when they came over, never the other stuff. It seemed funny, for even tiny markets in train stations to be carrying whole lines of artisanal chocolate milks and small batch cheeses. But this is a city with nothing but flat, green grazing land surrounding it, a long dairying history, and a neon sign hovering above a main street that reads “Drink ½ a liter of milk each day for good health,” in Danish, of course. After a few days of seeing chocolate milks everywhere I went, I began incorporating them into my daily routine, trying to test all the brands before shipping out.
I went home from this trip a month later and knew that farming and food would be what dictated the rest of my life. I wanted to find all the artisans and small producers I could. I wanted to support those that worked with the environment, not against it or in spite of it, and hoped that my very large country could one day adopt some of the same approaches of the place that inspired me so. I look at hours of sunlight differently, fruits with more reverence when there’s still dirt on them, and will always pay a little extra to try a small batch cheese or chocolate milk. I have found such pleasure on this culinary and botanical journey, and now that I also write about artisans, food and travel, I’ve found an even more satisfying outlet. I hope to offer the tiniest bit of inspiration for others through these articles, as I have been doubly inspired by what I have experienced, eaten, read, and seen.